Tag Archives: schisms

What if it is heresy?

What should you do if you believe someone is teaching something that is not only wrong, but dangerous to the body of Christ? 

Well, let’s start by saying that there are lots of heretics out there.  Why would this one bother you?  What motivation would you have to oppose this one when you haven’t opposed all the others?  If you don’t have an answer to that, then don’t worry about it.  God may not be calling you to be involved in that debate.  On the other hand; if people you care about are affected; or if a body of believers you care about is being pushed to division; or if you are in an official leadership position with the charge of caring about these things—then you may have a good reason to become involved. 

But how?  What are you supposed to do?  Here’s what I think:

First, your goal is to expose the error, not destroy the teacher.  Check your heart.  Personal vendetta, which almost always factors into church disputes, really should not be a part of dealing with heresy.  Other concerned people, who don’t have a personal stake in any feud, should come around the parties involved and make sure that the discussion does not degenerate into hate.  If you can’t deal with the issues apart from personal anger or animosity, then trust that the Lord will lead others. 

Second, while it is natural to want to convince the errant teachers to turn back from their error, it is not necessary.  In the past, people who chose error were put to death.  But even that strong response didn’t solve the problem.  The errors, some of which we accept as truth today, continued and those who died are remembered as martyrs.  The point is that the Spirit alone convinces our hearts, not the arguments of people around us.  Pray for the teacher.  If possible, try to discuss the issues.  Expose the errors publicly.  Do what is necessary; then realize that you can’t force someone to agree with you.  Not really.

Third, as I said a few days ago in another blog article, let the circle of the original teaching be the circle of your exposure.  I mean that you can answer a blog with a blog, a FB comment with another FB comment, a book with a book—but your public opposition may introduce people to the error and they may become intrigued.  If your attack is beyond what is necessary, they may see you as the negative one and be even more open to the error.

Fourth, there is a time to separate from the error.  Sometimes we are connected to error by associations.  Many denominational splits have come about because of people on one side of an issue desiring to be seen as different from those on the other side.  That might be acceptable, depending on the issues.  A public policy on abortion or homosexuality, would be an example of the cause of separation in our day.  If you believe that your ministry will be harmed or that your message will be compromised by the error of those close to you, you may have to separate from them.

According to the old story, the apostle John went into the public bath one day only to find that Cerinthus, the Gnostic teacher, was there.  John ran from the building and encouraged others to do the same lest, when the roof caved in through God’s judgment on Cerinthus, they should be caught in the collapse. 

Finally, and this is important, you don’t have to win.  Maintaining the purity of the church and its message is the Lord’s responsibility.  He may call you to do something, but He never requires the results from your hand.  Instead, you simply do what He has called you to do and leave the results up to Him.  Many may follow the error.  That’s not your responsibility.  Seek to teach truth.  Expose the error.  Then, when it’s over, let it be over.

There is such a thing as heresy.  There is heresy that is so contrary to the gospel that it perverts the message.  There is heresy that endangers the people who accept it and compromises their message.  Some are called to speak up when heresy is revealed.  Not everyone.  But those who are called shouldn’t enter into the battle with either fear or hatred.  We are better than that.

Thoughts?  Anything to add?  Disagree?

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Can I be friends with both sides?

Can I be friends with both sides?

 Why not?  Oh, wait, I know.  You find it hard because one side wants to claim you as theirs and so does the other; and, if you choose one of them, the other will disown you.  But, if you choose neither side, both will see you as a potential enemy.  Nice.  What are you supposed to do when people on both sides are your friends?

Every pastor who has been through a church split or has lost a significant number of people due to a disagreement has noticed that people who are not part of the disagreement also leave the church.  They don’t necessarily go with one group or the other, they just go.  Why?  Because they can’t handle the stress.  They just don’t want to be in the middle anymore.  They want to find somewhere else to worship so they don’t have to get pulled to the sides.

The Scripture talks about peacemakers.  Sometimes you are placed in the middle so that you can remind both sides of the call to love and of the centrality of Jesus, rather than the disagreement.  We often become blinded by fleshly emotions when we get into disagreements.  Feelings of anger, bitterness, betrayal, and pain become strong motivators in our attitudes and actions.  We do and say dumb things.  We overstate our position; we demonize the other side; we hurt people who were our friends.  Maybe you can help.

But be careful.  The peacemakers are blessed in Matthew 5 because their efforts often go unrewarded and unappreciated in this life.  Sometimes both sides turn against the peacemaker and you lose all the friends.  But the work is important and the effort is rewarded by the Lord. 

You see, confrontation and friendship are hard to keep together.  If one person disagrees and disagrees enough to confront, that is seen as conflict.  When we encounter conflict we naturally (in the flesh) pick up our weapons to defend ourselves.  When you get in between the opposing sides, you can get hurt.

Here’s something to consider: many people enter into peacemaking with the idea that the issue just isn’t that important.  They maintain their middle position partly because they can’t see what the big deal is.  But, if you tell either side that their concern isn’t a big deal, you will probably get slapped down. Both sides have already invested themselves into their concerns.  The issues are big enough to lose friends and hurt others.  They won’t walk away from the concerns easily.

Instead, show them that the issues they are fighting about are not the center of their faith.  There is no requirement for believers to agree on every point in order to “be of one mind.”  We must be of one mind toward Jesus.  In other words, our minds/hearts should all point to Him.

I knew a man who had great success in working with churches in dispute.  He would gather the sides together and write down the issues, the concerns of both sides, so that each had to listen to the other.  Then he would give them an hour for prayer.  He encouraged them just to take all of these concerns to the Lord, to open their own hearts before Him.  Very often, when they came back together, they found that the Lord really did supply answers that brought peace and healing. 

Yes, you can remain friends with both sides and maybe, just maybe, you can help both sides find their way back to their friendship/oneness in Jesus.

Thoughts?

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When do we stop?

 Even though I tend to use words like “fight” or “argue” without negative connotation, the truth is that the more polemic (my side vs your side) the discussion becomes, the less value it has.  If the discussion is causing you to hate, you need to stop.  There is a more important issue for you to deal with.  If you find yourself wanting the other person dead or desiring his hurt, you are hating.  If you call him names without regard to whether or not those labels are right, you may be hating.  If your goal is to discredit your brother, rather than to have your side of the disagreement heard, you may be very near hating.  I think this is the gist of Matthew 5:22.  You don’t want to hate.

Very often the evil one uses our flesh to manipulate our actions and attitudes.  When you find that the current argument dredges up old feelings and thoughts, so that you feel toward your brother the same things you felt toward someone else that hurt you, you may want to step back.  If the issue is important, the Lord will lead others to continue the discussion.  You may have reached the point of your compromise, when you no longer will be effective.  Trust that the Lord will solve the problem. 

Now, read this carefully: it is the flesh that needs to win.  You do not need to win this argument to honor the Lord or to protect right doctrine.  If you find that you simply must win, step back.  Sometimes the argument goes long past the point of fruitfulness.  When both sides have presented their views and there is no place for agreement, then it is over.  Sell the building and split the proceeds, agree to minister in different places and with different groups, let your opposing books do their work—but end it.  Find the way to let it go.  Letting it go is not compromise.  It is simply acknowledging that there is no value in going further.

What about all those mean things the others said about you or did to you?  Well, forgive them.  Forgiving them does not mean that you think they were right.  In fact, forgiveness means you think they were wrong, but you choose to give the offense over to the Lord.  Forgiveness is a good thing.  You will feel better and be more effective in future ministry when you find the way to it.

Some arguments don’t end with a happy solution.  That’s okay.  The day of truth is coming when you will know who was right and who was wrong . . . and in that day it won’t matter.

 Thoughts?

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Do I have to go to the teacher first?

 Very often, when Christians disagree with a popular teacher, someone will bring up the “Biblical requirement” that the accusers should have gone to the person before publically stating their disagreement.  They refer to a couple of verses in Matthew 18. 

I want to look at this passage, but let’s note a couple of things before we do that. 

First, this standard, in my experience, is used selectively.  People criticize you for not going to their favorite teacher, but they are quite willing to disagree with other teachers publicly without a previous personal contact.  It seems to make a difference who you disagree with.  In both politics and religion, this double standard seems to rule the day.

Second, public teachers are notoriously difficult to contact.  They post, publish, or proclaim their teaching then become almost reclusive.  Not all, of course, but many.  Enough so that it is very likely you would have difficulty getting an answer concerning your disagreement.  You can understand this.  A teacher writes a book or posts to a popular blog.  Let’s say that 10,000 read the book or blog.  If only one percent of those people disagree, the author would have to respond to personal contacts from 100 people.  It’s easy to see why a teacher might not want to get started in that much correspondence.  But does that mean that those who disagree have to keep quiet, since they had no personal contact? 

When an author writes a book or a blog, he or she must understand the concept of “going public.”  It simply means that the ideas are now out for the world’s examination.  Almost all authors understand this.  There will be reviews, criticisms, endorsements, or maybe protests—most without personal contact.  Those who disagree will use the author’s name and possibly even try to discredit the idea by discrediting the author.  Some of us might find that distasteful, perhaps even immoral, but authors and teachers who publish their ideas to the public have to understand that this is how the game is played.

So, let’s go back to Matthew 18:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 
But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’  
And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.  Matthew 18:15-17(NKJV)

Interesting, isn’t it?  Where, exactly, does it say that I have to contact an author or teacher before I publicly disagree?  Does the doctrinal concern he presents constitute “sin against” me?  I don’t think of an error as sin.  Even if I did, the sin wouldn’t be against me.  If the teacher named me and misrepresented or misquoted me, it might be sin against me.  But, if he simply teaches something with which I disagree, I don’t think that’s sin against me.

I have never really understood how this verse could be used in the situations we are talking about.  It’s an important verse about relationships.  It is certainly right to confront someone who has sinned against you and deal with that person through this process.  But I would not be so quick to call a simple disagreement on doctrine sin—in any form.

Over the years I have encountered this admonition with supporters of legalistic teachers or preachers.  They engender a considerable loyalty among their followers.  Pointing to Matthew 18 has usually been a way of telling me or others to “shut up.”  Disagreement with the teacher is not acceptable, apparently.  Sometimes I have seen this used in church disputes and sometimes it is appropriate.  Very often church problems become intensely personal and there is sin committed against fellow members.  When we sin against each other, we should be ready to deal with the offense and the pain it caused.

Perhaps it will be helpful to look at Paul’s example.  He names some of the people with whom he disagrees and there is little to indicate that he talked with them first (1 Cor. 1:11+; Phil. 4:2; 1 Tim. 1:20).  In fact, Paul makes some fairly strong statements about these people—based on their teaching.  John does a similar thing in 3 John 9-10.  Now, I don’t know for certain that there was no personal contact.  That must be said.  But there is no statement about a personal contact before the negative assessments are given. 

Look: if you can contact someone to discuss your concerns before you publicly state your disagreement, by all means do it.  You may be the tool God uses to bring them back (or they may help you to see God’s truth.)  But if this isn’t possible, you can challenge public teaching publicly. 

Matthew 18 is a wonderful passage.  It shouldn’t be misused.

Comments?

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You… you… you… heretic!

Beware – some may not like this post!

These days many countries in the Middle East are in turmoil.  On the news we see the videos of the protestors holding signs, screaming angry words, and overturning cars and statues.  Sometimes we see someone run to the front of the crowd with a rock or a Molotov cocktail, throw it toward the building or group they are protesting, and then run to the back of the crowd.  That may be a helpful image to have in our minds when we consider calling a brother in Christ a heretic or an apostate.  Lob the bomb and run.

Now, no matter what I say after this, I must begin by saying that there are heretical teachings and there are apostates.  Some teachings are inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture and bring harm to the body by misleading God’s people in important matters.  Some people leave behind the true faith of Jesus Christ.  It happens and it is very sad.  But let’s be sure that’s what is happening before we use those words.

 

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But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.  2 Peter 2:1

This is the only real Scriptural use of the Greek word, hairesis, that fits the definition of the word, heresy, as we use it today.  Even here the word keeps its primary sense of “choice.”  Basically, a heresy is a chosen opinion or doctrinal stance that is different from what has been presented by the established method of determining truth.  For most evangelical groups, heresy is a denial of the plain teaching of Scripture and the choice of a teaching that cannot be clearly established by Scripture.  For some denominations, heresy is an opinion or teaching that is outside the traditions or decisions of the church.  A heretic is someone who chooses to associate with or endorse such a teaching. 

Notice that the passage above is quite judgmental of both the heretical teachings and those who are teaching such things.  Sometimes the teaching is that dangerous and the person has to be reprimanded.  Sometimes the church has to be warned about the false teaching.  Some people are called by God to pay the price of pointing out the error. 

But, in spite of the historical images of heretics being burned at the stake, it really isn’t so awful to call someone a heretic or even to be a heretic.  Almost all heretics began as simple believers.  They studied and came to different conclusions than the group.  Most of them used Scripture to establish their teachings and really didn’t consider them to be outside of what is considered orthodox.  Almost any aberrant group began with basic faith and the path went awry after time.  But, when the community began to examine the teachings (through church councils or reading and commenting on books) and decided that those teachings stepped past the confines of Scripture, the trouble began.  What do you do with someone who says to the Christian community, “I know you think that way but I choose to think differently”?  Sometimes you call that person a heretic.

But listen: heretics still consider themselves Christians.  Heretics do not always deny the necessity or sufficiency of Christ.  Some of them believe almost all of what you and I believe, but they teach a few things that are off the track.  For the most part, we can even fellowship together.  If this were not true, and accepted by evangelicals, we would have to call many groups and teachers heretical and separate from them. The Presbyterians and the Nazarenes could do nothing together.  The Lutherans and the Baptists would be out of fellowship.  Most of these divisions we call denominations are the result of one group considering another to be heretical.  Thankfully, we are beginning to find ways back to each other because of Jesus.  I believe that we will find many heretics in Heaven.  (They may be off in the corner getting scolded and re-educated, but they will be there. 😉 )

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They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.  1 John 2:19(NKJV)

 

All of this is quite different from the idea of an apostate.  An apostate is someone who has deliberately renounced the Christian faith.  At one point he appeared in every way to be a part of it, but then he rejected it and began to believe and teach something else.  After the time of Constantine the emperor Julian embraced the Christian faith.  Then he renounced it and began a serious effort to re-establish the pagan religion of Rome.  He has forever after been known as “Julian the Apostate.”  This, of course, brings up all kinds of questions about whether a true believer can reject a true faith, but we don’t have the space here to address that.

So an apostate will join you in saying that he is no longer a Christian.  A heretic, on the other hand, will be quite surprised and even offended if you say that.  But, once again, these labels are rarely helpful in a doctrinal debate.  Like the “lob the bomb and run” crowd, those who call others these names usually want to avoid real confrontation or discussion.  And, as I wrote earlier, the discussion may be an important exercise for all of us. *

Comments?

*Special acknowledgment to the “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology” edited by Walter A. Elwell and published by Baker for helping me think through these definitions.

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Are teachers more accountable?

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. James 3:1(NKJV)

Stricter judgment?  Yikes!  What does that mean?  Since all eternal judgment is based on our relationship with Christ, I take this to mean earthly judgment, judgment of the community or church.  James goes on to remind us that the tongue is a dangerous tool.  No doubt, in our culture, he would agree that the pen and the computer are dangerous as well.  Those who teach should be careful.

Is it fair to judge teachers?  That may be the wrong question.  The question may be whether it is avoidable.  Is it even possible not to judge teachers?  Sooner or later, something you teach will come back and people will use it to challenge you.  Sadly, we expect our teachers to be perfect and a failing in one area discredits much of the rest of their teachings. 

Teachers are accountable rightly when they claim that their teaching comes from God or is “biblical.”  They ought to make their case strongly with Scripture support.  Teachers are accountable wrongly when their followers look to them without questioning.  That isn’t necessarily the fault of the teacher.  However, I believe that teachers should cultivate questioning and allow discussion, simply to avoid the impression that they speak with the voice of God.  When the teacher is sharing something that is clear from the Scriptures, he/she should let the Scriptures speak.  In other words, if God said it, show me.  If you are saying it, I will feel much more free to disagree.

There are certain “job hazards” that come with being a teacher. Some people, who perhaps lack the means or the interest to attack the teaching, will attempt to discredit the teaching by discrediting the teacher.  The teacher’s life becomes much more open to inspection and challenge than the life of the student.  I suppose this is true in Christian circles more than in others, but politicians face a similar hazard.

Also, teachers are placed in a position of having to produce material.  To write regularly on a blog, preach each Sunday, write follow-up books, whatever—takes work.  No one wants to use the same ideas over and over, whether they are his own ideas or the rehashed ideas of others.  Teaching today must be innovative, interesting, motivating, and challenging.  How do you come up with that regularly?

Well, good teachers are also students.  They study the Scripture and they study writings of other teachers and they study people and life.  As they study, they learn and form ideas.  One serious job hazard is the temptation to teach what is being learned, rather than what has been learned.  In other words, teachers sometimes teach out of their own journey.  Not a bad thing in itself, except that a journey is not a conclusion.  How often have we learned things at or near the end of the journey that affect our whole understanding of where we have been?  If we teach out of the journey, we may mislead people and may find ourselves defending things we aren’t even sure of ourselves.  Pretty soon we have painted ourselves into a corner.  Labels come that we don’t want, but we can no longer deny easily. 

Preachers often hear themselves quoted as saying things they didn’t say.  You may have heard of the ancient heresy called, “Nestorianism.”  It had to do with how we understand the union of God and man in Jesus.  It is interesting that some people suggest Nestorius never really taught Nestorianism.  There is real question as to whether Pelagius ever taught what became known as Pelagianism.  What happened?  Well, the followers of these men took the teaching farther than their teachers.  But when the teaching went over the edge and became objectionable, the name continued.  Few people warn teachers of this “job hazard.”

Our evangelical fathers asked an appropriate question, “Where stands it written?”  What they meant was that the doctrine, in order to be taken as prescriptive or normative, had to be found in Scripture.  They would then test the application of Scripture to the question, using accepted methods of interpretation.  Teachers have to be willing for their teachings to go through such a test and the people who do the testing may not have studied the issue as long or as carefully as the teacher.  It is similar to placing a painting out for public view.  Regular people are quite free to stand in front of the artwork and decide whether they “like it or not” based on their own set of standards.  Just as this is often frustrating to an artist; so the examination of a teaching can be frustrating for a teacher.  A job hazard. 

God calls some to teach.  Just be careful . . . and be ready for challenges.

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Who Said What?

One of the more shocking chastisements I have heard used among believers is the idea that we are not to use names when referring to those with whom we disagree.  We are supposed to say “some teachers” or “a certain someone I know” or use some other method of keeping an identity anonymous.  This surprised me again recently.

Now maybe my background is the problem.  I have advanced academic degrees and learned that referencing sources is important. If you don’t name the person you challenge in your dissertation, the professor will probably mark you down.  If you say, “A certain teacher believes;” the professor will ask, “Who?”  Identifying sources allows others to verify your words and determine for themselves whether or not they agree with you. 

Or maybe it is because I have been a pastor for so long.  Many times people have come to my office and have said, “Pastor, quite a few people are concerned…”  But I only see one person in front of me.  Who are the others?  Where are the others?  Are they afraid to identify themselves?  Do they really exist?  I have spoken against what I call “back-pocket people,” and have asked “representatives” to represent only themselves.  My desire is to value the disagreement or concerns of one person and there is no need to hint at more. 

Or maybe it’s because I sat so long under the teaching of a legalist who always had these amazing examples to support his points.  The problem was that these examples never had names.  It became very difficult to believe that they existed at all.  Today, when the teacher or author says, “A certain man,” I just assume he is telling me a parable. 

So, I think there are situations that call for names to be used.  Authors, teachers, politicians—people who present their ideas to large audiences—should be named when their ideas or writings are challenged.  Why?  Because each teacher is different.  Teacher A teaches the idea one way.  Teacher B communicates it another way.  If I fail to distinguish between them, I may misrepresent one of them.  Also, the author/teacher has already identified himself with the idea.  It is neither gossip nor accusation to refer to the teaching and the teacher together.

But I do have a general rule to follow.  Let the circle of the teacher’s teaching be the circle of the identification.  In other words, if an author presents his ideas in a book that is promoted and marketed publicly, then naming that author in reference to his teachings in another book, or any smaller venue, is acceptable.  If the teacher has a blog or a radio program, a reference in your book may be too large, but in your blog or radio program it may be acceptable.  But if a person makes a comment on Facebook, then Facebook should be the limit of the naming.  And, this is my opinion, ideas expressed in private conversation should be answered in private conversation.

A couple examples (and I will avoid names): One legalistic teacher has a ministry that has reached something near 20 million people.  Is it fair to use his name in association with his teaching?  Of course, provided it is truly his teaching you are referring to.  (No matter how large the ministry, you are not free to misrepresent someone.)  Someone makes a comment I dislike on a friend’s Facebook page.  Am I free to use that offender’s name in my blog?  No.  There are many people who read my blog who would not know this person and I would be introducing him in a disparaging way to them.

Sometimes I hear words like libel or slander used when names come up in Christian discussion.  Libel is associated with written defamation.  Slander is usually a spoken false charge or defamation.  Both have to do with purposeful misrepresentation.  If I write, “Bob is a tax cheat,” I had better be able to back up my statement with facts.  Even if I can do so, my purpose in writing the words must not be to defame Bob or to harm him publicly.  That would be libel.  If I think that someone is cheating on his wife and I say that publicly, I could easily be guilty of slander. 

But referring to the published teachings of an author/teacher by using his name is neither libel nor slander, as long as you can show that the person actually is proclaiming the ideas.  You are free to disagree or interpret the ideas as you wish.  You may not be free to interpret the teaching and then represent your interpretation as the interpretation of the other person, however.  Instead, you have to say something like: if this is what the author means, then he is teaching xyz.  Even then, he is free to disagree with you (and use your name in the same circle).

I will close with a contrasting thought:  It really isn’t necessary to use names in all circumstances.  Sometimes, as in this blog, you will be better served by just talking about a teaching in general.  Supporters of teachers or authors can pick up an offense quite quickly.  Often they don’t care about the teaching you are trying to talk about.  All they care about is that you named their favorite teacher and said negative things.  You become the enemy unnecessarily.  And, if you pronounce judgment on the teaching, you may be seen as pronouncing judgment on the person.  If you say, “x teaches abc and abc is heresy,” you will be heard to say that x is a heretic.

Sometimes it just isn’t worth it.

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